SANGER – By his own admission, Felipe Mercado believed he would be dead before 18.
The Fresno State professor, Ph.D. holder, founder of Wise Souls, and the author of “A Journey to Compassion: Learning to Stand Firm in the Face of Pain,” which, this year, received honorable mention from the International Latino Book Awards for most inspirational nonfiction book in English, was headed nowhere.
He was living in and selling drugs out of the Townhouse Hotel in Sanger – the same hotel his father lived in and peddled drugs out of when Mercado was a child. He was addicted to methamphetamines (meth), and cocaine. The one stabilizing factor in his life, his girlfriend, had left him.
“That was the worst feeling at the time because I wanted to do everything not to be like my dad. But here I was being exactly like him,” Mercado said. He knew something had to change. He also remembered something his grandfather told him years ago: “If you want to get ahead in life, you have to go to school.”
“If I was on dope or in jail, I was always thinking, ‘I have to go to school,’” Mercado said.
This was not a simple solution for a person who had been homeless since he was 14.
BORN INTO FEAR
Mercado was born in 1985. He is the oldest of three brothers. For the first six years of his life, he lived on P Street off an alley by the high school. Life with his parents was anything but tranquil.
“My dad’s main drug of choice was cocaine. I would say he never had a stable job because he was always just trying to make the income to feed his habit,” said Mercado.
Mercado said his mother dealt with depression her entire life. He never knew what mood his parents would be in.
“I never knew what was going to happen,” he said. “When my mom and my dad were alone, I didn’t know the interactions they had. I didn’t know this language at the time. That made me fearful and always on edge. I didn’t know if my mom was going to hit me.”
TANGERINE HILL AND NO COMPASSION
When Mercado was six, his father went to jail. The family moved from P Street into the Townhouse Hotel. His father got out of jail and the family lived for two months in a single room. Mercado described the experience as claustrophobic and suffocating. They eventually moved to the Tangerine Hill apartments until Mercado was in the 8th grade. By now, the family had grown by the birth of Mercado’s middle brother, Enrique (Henry), when Mercado was in the third grade.
Mercado said a recurring theme in his young life was the lack of compassion from his teachers. He said he was proud of his Latino heritage and he knew he was smart. But despite earning good grades, his teachers were more interested in him fitting into a mold.
“I had to learn to be ashamed of this proud person,” he said. “I did my best to fit into the mold. I learned to spell. But I felt there was no one to understand me. Even when I got good grades, they looked at me as being a bad kid. People were always looking at the negative.”
He said he found the lack of compassion and understanding from his teachers and the other adults in his life debilitating.
“It seemed like for me, there are adults like that. You’re finding your way, you are proud of who you are becoming, and someone says, ‘You’re not good enough.’ That adult is your guide; they have more wisdom. They’re oppressing a kid’s thought, a kid’s dream,” Mercado said.
In elementary school, Mercado learned to mask his pain by becoming a tough kid.
“I learned if you hit someone, if you’re mean to someone, you shut them down,” Mercado said. “I got good at it. I had this reputation for striking first and hitting first. People didn’t want to mess with me but underneath that was all this pain.” He said he learned to emulate the gang members in his neighborhood because they had credibility in the world. But inside, he knew it was just a front.
“I always tell people that was my false love,” he said. “People saying you were down, you were cool. My parents weren’t giving me and society wasn’t giving me that. Because of that, I developed this hard exterior because it was easy to do.”
HOMELESS THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL
Mercado’s youngest brother, Sammy, was born when Mercado was in the 6th grade. By then, the family had returned to the P Street neighborhood and was renting a two-bedroom house. After yet another argument with his father, Mercado said he had had enough and the two had a physical fight. His father threw him out of the home. He was 14.
Mercado said he spent the next years couch surfing and sleeping in the park. But through it all, he remembered his grandfather’s advice to stay in school.
“I had to keep going to school because that’s what my grandpa told me to do,” he said.
Mercado is an intelligent man. He held a 3.8 grade point average in the 8th grade. His success qualified him to take all college prep classes in 9th grade. But he wasn’t up for taking on that challenge, and he almost flunked them all.
“I got a D in P.E.,” he said, his only passing grade.
Despite being homeless and despite being addicted to meth – he said he routinely smoked meth and completed his assignments the night before they were due – Mercado remained in school. He attributes this tenacity to his grandfather’s voice and to the positive role models, including teachers, who were in his life.
DAVID AND TUPAC
When Mercado was in the 7th grade, he befriended David Hera, who was living in the Country Creek Apartments. Mercado said Hera gave him confidence and was a positive influence. He also provided a place to stay when Mercado later became homeless. Tupac Shakur, who was killed when Mercado was 11, also proved to be a strong influence in Mercado’s life.
“I learned who Tupac was. Tupac became the biggest role model to me because I saw him for his revolutionary side. He was going through the hurt I was going through. I also saw him trying to navigate this world and trying to help society and youth. I didn’t think I would be able to do it on a large scale. At the time, I thought I’d be able to do it in my little hood, so to speak,” Mercado said.
In his book, Mercado credits certain teachers who finally recognized his abilities and provided encouragement. He said his senior year in high school was pivotal because of the women who entered his life. This included his English teacher, Ms. Johnstone, who advocated for Mercado’s emancipation and who encouraged him to pursue his poetry and other writing endeavors. He also met his future wife, Marissa.
When Mercado met Marissa, he was living a dual existence. He was the struggling high school student, precariously hanging onto his academic career. He was the street hustler, homeless and selling drugs to get by and to feed his addiction.
“Marissa was the huge beacon,” he said. Marissa had enrolled in Reedley College. Marissa had a truck. Marissa was the one who encouraged Mercado to go to Reedley. And Marissa was the girlfriend who left a drugged-out Mercado at the Townhouse Hotel where he was renting two rooms – one to live in and the other where he kept his drugs in case the police showed up.
Marissa gave Mercado a second chance. She drove him to Reedley College where he studied business. She stuck by him after he fled from and was later arrested by the Reedley police after he had purchased drugs for a friend in Selma. And she stayed following a 2007 home invasion on Mother’s Day at the Parlier house the two rented and where they were raising their son, who was 8 months at the time.
“I realized because I am hanging around and doing stupid stuff,” said Mercado, “I am bringing this to my family.”
Mercado’s life has been punctuated by triumphs and tragedies. He said when Enrique and Sammy were born, it was the first time he ever experienced love.
“Holding my brothers and them giggling and laughing,” he said. “That connection was something I never got from anywhere else.” He experienced a different kind of love when he met Marissa. And yet another kind of love when his son was born. Then he was hit with the reality that life is fleeting.
Mercado’s bestfriend David Hera was murdered in 2007. He was at a party and someone shot him. For Mercado, Hera’s death nearly unwound everything he had accomplished to that point. Prior to Hera’s murder, Mercado had gotten clean. He relapsed.
“It took me back to my addiction for a year,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my brothers and my son at the time, I don’t know if I would have gotten out of it.”
He said what pulled him through was knowing his two younger brothers looked up to him as a role model.
“My brothers would come and visit me. I became the role model. And they would sometimes see me doped out. And I would feel ashamed. So that push is what helped me to change,” he said.
But when it rained, it poured on Mercado when his brother Sammy was murdered in 2012, when Mercado was enrolled in the Masters in Social Work (MSW) program at Fresno State.
“He was missing for six months. The only way we could identify him because he was in a shallow grave was through his dental records,” Mercado said. Sammy had followed his brother into selling drugs – something that bothered Mercado for years.
“For a long time, I beat myself up because I thought it was my fault my brother had passed away. I sold drugs; I taught him how to sell drugs,” he said. “But as I learned to have self-compassion, I realized that was the best I could do at the time. It wasn’t my fault. There are all these circumstances.”
PHD, WISE SOULS, FIND SAMMY
Mercado earned his MSW and then his Ph.D. He said his brother’s murder “ignited” him to succeed. But he was frustrated.
“I got my degree. I became an administrator. I became a principal. I quickly realized that everything I thought I could do, I wasn’t able to do. There’s unions; there’s politics,” he said. “I realized I went in there trying to help kids and families and communities, but sometimes, when you do that, your school boards and districts and teachers will say it seems you’re more for them than you are for us.”
Wise Souls was born out of Mercado’s frustration with the status quo in social work. For Mercado, the organization supplies compassion and tailored instruction to individuals who may be at risk for falling through the cracks.
“When I think of Wise Sols and the birth of it, it’s really about trying to help schools develop curriculum and insight that they should already have but they don’t,” said Mercado.
Mercado created Find Sammy to help poor families pay for the cost of funerals.
“When someone gets murdered, especially in poverty, they have to do a car wash [to raise funds],” said Mercado. “And sometimes they don’t make enough money. The Find Sammy Foundation is there for when those murders happen, for us to develop a scholarship for you so you can be able to bury your kid.”
Mercado said the title of the book reflects what he believes is the larger concept of what most people usually think of when they mention compassion.
“When I think about the journey to compassion,” he said, “I feel like we’re all on the journey. Some of us are a little bit better on the journey; some of us are a little bit off the journey. But life has so much unexpectancy that happens. And that’s why I say standing firm in the face of pain. Because there are so many things that happen. Right now, there’s a war going on. And it’s easy to pick a side, depending on where you grew up. But when you have compassion, there are no sides.”